Monday, May 29, 2006

Web pages and video for smartphones

After a Quick look at the Blackberry 8700g Smartphone, I found there are very similar looking rival units, such as the Motorola Moto Q, Nokia E61 and Sony Ericsson M600i. While I have written about how to do web pages on such units, I have had a few queries from people about video for training purposes for them. I am not sure that is really a good idea and audio with slides might be better with MMS (SMIL for mobile phones). Video might work better on larger devices, such as the Microsoft Ultra-Mobile PCs, and games units, such as the GP2X with Linux. Anyone had any experience?

Podcasting: SMIL Alternative?

After deciding Apple's GarageBand was a little over engineered for adding slides to the audio of a lecture I looked around for an alternative.

One technology which has been around for years is SMIL. This web format was intended for multimedia, but has not proved popular. But it is supported by Apple's Quicktime and Real's player.

So I took the VGA resolution slides (640 x 480 pixels) in PNG format I had created for the podcast and created a small SMIL file with entries like this:

<audio src="http://....mp3" ... clipBegin="npt=00:02:13" ... clipEnd="npt=00:03:43" />
<a href="http://www..."> <img src="http://www.t..." region="slides" dur="92s" alt="Web on Mobile phones ..." /></a>

This says "play the MP3 audio file from 2 minutes 13 seconds into the recording and stop at 3 minutes 43 seconds. At the same time display Slide 4".

The clever bit about this is that you can combine existing images and audio from anywhere on the Internet, without having to re-encode them. Also you can virtually edit the audio, by selecting clips from it. My SMIL presentation is about ten minutes shorter than the MP3 audio recording, due to bits I skipped. Also the images are high quality because you can use lossless formats, rather than the lossy ones used for video formats.

The SMIL player goes and gets the audio and images from the web as needed. The catch is that if your Internet connection is not fast enough, there are gaps in the sound and blank screens if the audio or images do not arrive in time. I created another SMIL file from the second half of the first. This is the audio for my
"Wireless Web System for an Avian Influenza Pandemic", talk. The catch is that the player has to skip though 24 minutes of audio to get to the relevant bit to play. Without some sort of streaming server, this will be slow and inefficient. Of course I could split the recording into two halves.

The other catch is that this format is not supported by the iPod, or any other hand held video player (as far as I know). But at least you can play the original MP3 audio on a hand held player. Does anyone really want to watch slides on a tiny screen?

Modular Low Cost Housing for Canberra?

Keetwonen project by Tempohousing
After suggesting Canberra look at low cost, high quality, environmentally efficient modular housing a need for it came up. In May it was reported more than 100 tenants are to be evicted from a Narrabundah caravan park.

While not being an expert in housing design, I had a look around and found that first of all Canberra has a history of using prefabricated and modular housing (much of it not very good). But are now systems for building modular cluster housing (apartments and town houses).

In the most extreme case a whole apartment block for 200 people can be ordered from China. It is build in modules the size of shipping containers, sent by sea, rail and road, then assembled by a crane like building blocks.

Mini Aircraft Carriers for Australian Navy

Navantia Landing Helicopter Dock ship, Copyright Navantia, 10 August 2005
The Australian Defence Force is acquiring two new amphibious ships under the defence project plan JP2048. A decision will be made by 2007 between one of two designs to be built in Australia: the Spanish "Navantia" or French "Armaris Mistral". The ships are planned to carry 1000 personnel, six helicopters and 150 vehicles, including the M1A1 Abrams tank.

While described as "Landing Helicopter Dock" (LHD) ships, they look to the lay person like small aircraft carriers and could operate fixed wing V/STOL aircr, such as AV-8B Harrier II or the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, but this is not planned.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Last Cheque from Google

Last year cheques started arriving from Google for advertising on my web site. I had to get them to the bank quickly as they are printed on flimsy paper and fall apart.

Now I have got my last cheque from Google. They haven't decided to stop paying for ads, but have finally implemented electronic payments in Australia. After you enter the bank account number Google send you a small amount to verify the account.

One aspect I only noticed recently was that the ads were not showing up on Internet Explorer. I design my web pages so the content appears first and then the ads. This is so readers are not annoyed by sitting looking at ads, waiting for the content to download. Also, on small screen the ads don't push the content off the visible part of the page.

But Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 does a poor job of formatting some web pages. It doesn't obey the CSS width command and spreads some content over the next column. This pushes the ads down to the bottom of the page, where many viewers never see them. This seems to happen with side by side images, PRE formatted text and long strings of text with no spaces in them (such as long URLs). Hopefully Microsoft will fix this, but while I am using the old one I have to check web pages one by one and fix the formatting.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Quick look at the Blackberry 8700g Smartphone

Blackberry loaned me one of their mobile phone handsets to try out displaying web pages for emergencies, such as an tsunami or a bird flu pandemic. You can read the short and long versions of my talk notes about how any why to have a mobile web page for an emergency.

The Blackberry 8700g Smartphone is optimized for text display, rather than making phone calls. It has a landscape screen and full (but small) QWERTY keyboard. This makes it easy to read mail messages and type brief replies. You can scroll up and down using the wheel on the side and click it to select.

But as a phone the 8700g is difficult to hold up to your ear. It never seems to be in the right place and it is difficult to hear clearly with it. If you are a bluetooth cyborg, with a cordless headset permanently on, then that will be fine. Blackberry also have models with a portrait screen and skinner keyboard, more like a regular phone.

The web page conversion to the little screen worked very well, and email reception also. The Blackberry was let down by an overly protective holster. I had a lot of trouble getting it on to my belt and off again. I also had difficulty getting the Blackberry out of the holster without accidently pushing a lot of buttons. But presumably that would improve over time and there are no doubt lots of third party cases available.

In the end I decided to send the Blackberry back, even though RIM offered to let me keep it. I would have ended up with it and a more conventional mobile phone as well and that is just too much to carry around. At one stage I was trying out an iPod loaned by Apple, and had an iPod, Blackberry and phone all clipped to my belt, which looked like something from a Batman costume.

But if I was in the emergency business, or some other 24 x 7 job which needed full time real time text communications, the Blackberry might be just the gadget. But then I would first want to look at rival fat-phones, such as the Nokia E61.

ps: For more on displaying web pages on a smartphone, see:

Internet Governance by the people, for which people?

Danny Butt is giving talks around Australia and New Zealand about the book he edited for the UNDP on Internet Governance. He didn't have a Canberra venue, so I arranged for him to speak in the usual Wednesday seminar slot at ANU. This was a challenge as the ANU is where the Australian Internet was created. Telling technical people that it is time to hand their baby over to an international bureaucracy is a lot to ask.

Danny argued that while the Internet developers had created decision making processes, via bodies such as ICANN, which were theoretically open to wide input, there were in practice still run by a technocracy. Anyone could have their say, but if you didn't talk the right language (preferably a dialect spoken on Californian engineering campuses), you may not be heard. I had some first hand experience of this when speaking at INET 2001 in Stockholm, with tensions between the Internet's creators, companies, governments and the rest of the world very evident.

Danny argued that ICANN's being based in the USA was unlikely to change. Whatever the process used, it had to be more open to outside views. Asia is likely to be the major area for Internet development, but is not being heard enough in the decision making processes of the Internet. The risk is that if the Internet will not adopt the standards Asia needs, then Asia will build its own Internet standards.

A current example of the tensions are news reports that a US company has taken the U.S. Government to court, aledging it interfered in ICANN's processes, to block the .xxx domain.

If you get a chance, attend Danny's talk at one of the other venues. There is also an unedited audio recording of the Canberra talk available.

Podcasting: GarageBand not suitable for lectures

With Lectopia a possible Nirvana for podcasting lectures, it was time to return to the here and now. Apple Australia had loaned me equipment to make a podcast, so it was time to make a podcast.

An audio Podcast is simple enough. What I wanted was an "enhanced" Podcast of a lecture. This would have the audio recorded in the lecture, plus slides and hypertext links to the notes. The Apple iPod plays such enhanced files in the form of MPEG4 files. Note that this is not MPEG video, but a separate part of the MPEG4 standard specifically for audio with pictures (called XMT).

The idea was to do the minimum of work needed to enhance the audio and to create the smallest, simplest most versatile content possible. No live video, as it takes a lot of setting up to produce, it takes a lot of bandwidth to play and doesn't add much to the experience. In any case I didn't have any video available from my lectures.

Slides are easy to create as still images from the screen presentation. When stored at VGA resolution (640 x 480 pixels) in PNG format, they only require about 20 kbytes each. This is about the resolution of a TV set and exactly twice the iPod screen size (QVGA 320 x 240) so should be acceptable for most purposes.

Most of the educational online content I have seen suffers from the problem of storing the images as JPEG or MPEG format. These are lossy formats designed for photographs. They make text and diagrams look blurry. Also they tend to be stored with a very large color range, which makes for bigger files. Most diagrams have a few dozen or few hundred colors.

One problem I had was that my "slides" are not Powerpoint, but a web page rendered with a special CSS style sheet. Without a built in capture system, I had to display each slide in the browser, then copy and paste the screen image to a paint program, crop, resize, reduce color range and then store as PNG.

Another problem is that I had neglected to include a marker in the presentation web page to mark the start of each slide, so I had to go back and add these. I then copied the web address of the slide and some text for the podcast. This would not be a problem for a Powerpoint or similar presentation, where there is a built in marker for each slide.

The most tedious part of the process is having to listen to the sound of my own voice, so I could mark the points where the slides, text and hyperlinks are inserted. It is tempting to then try and edit out all the audio blemishes out of the recording, but that would be a very time consuming process.

I did this with Garage Band, which came with the Apple Mac notebook computer. Garage Band was originally designed for recording and editing music. It has had a podcast track added, where you can insert "chapters", with images, text and hypertext links. Apple provide excellent online advice on how to create a podcast.

There were a few problems with this process. GarageBand is designed to give fine control over the audio. You don't really need this for podcast lectures. I found myself accidently selecting the wrong audio track, when I really only wanted one audio track. I would have liked to switch off most of the audio control features. In contrast I needed more control over inserting the chapters. Apple only provides a tiny space for this in the interface.

I tried it out on a couple of minutes audio and two slides and managed to play the result on the iPod. The sound was very good, but the visual display was unusable. The system had cropped the edges of my slides so the first few characters were missing. Also the text captions were placed over the bottom of the image, obscuring some content. It also appears that GarageBand had reduced my clear 640 x 480 PNG images to blurry little 160 x 160 JPEG.

Obviously I should have followed the advice I give others and included a "safe" blank border around each slide. But given the small size of the iPod screen, every pixel is precious. Perhaps there is a manual which explains why Apple does this, or even how to turn it off, but it seems an odd default behavior for the system.

GarageBand isn't really suitable for preparing podcasts of educational material. It might be good for preparing high art, or entertainment, but if you want to churn out dull, standardized material it is too flexible. This is much the same problem as with the average web creation software which makes it easy to insert lots of fonts, when what you need is a system which restricts you to a few standardized ones. You need a specific tool, such as the many add-ons for Powerpoint.

In my case I was trying to do things from first principles. So I needed to step back and try XMT's older brother: SMIL.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Podcasting System Australian Made: Lectopia for Lecture

Lectopia screen image
After I mentioned the Australian National University (ANU) had turned some of my web design lectures into podcasts, someone pointed out that another University had been doing this for years and was now marketing their system world wide.

The system is Lectopia (known in Australia as the iLecture System), from the University of Western Australia. Because this is a system which the UWA uses, rather than something they are just selling, you can get a good idea of the practicalities from their experience. The system has also been used at UNSW, Duke University (USA) and Curtin University.

UWA has 45 rooms equipped with the basic facility to record the audio and video of a lecture, 32 of which can also record what is on the screen directly (screen capture). Their experience indicates that 60% of the recordings are just audio, 25% with a document camera (from a paper document), 10% Screen Capture from a computer screen, and only 5% with video.

UWA also have an extensive set of Staff Guidelines, detailing how to use the system in the teaching context, use in Learning Management Systems and Copyright issues. Copyright is an example of a tricky issue with such a system. University lecturers have more flexibility in how they can use copyright material. But they need to follow the rules, especially if what they are doing is recorded and could be played back in court as evidence.

A real lecture

Most of the recorded lectures at UWA are in their course management system and you need to be an enrolled student to play them. But some are publicly accessible. As an example Foundations of Information Technology (CITS1230).

It should be noted that this is not a polished distance education course, but just a regular lecture recorded, complete with "ums". The presentation is available as audio only for dialup connections and with slow speed video for a range of broadband speeds (the lower broadband version seems to display at QVGA, the higher at VGA resolution).

It happens I have seen an early version of this system in use at the UWA's Albany campus, when a consultant for government. Albany is closer to Antarctica than it is to the rest of Australia, so distance education is a boon for the students. The web based system had an interesting use of the document cameras, which looked like "talking hands". Instead of videoing the face of the lecturer, or a overhead projector screen, a document camera was used. The camera showed the lecture slides on ordinary pieces of paper on the desk. You could also see the lecturer's hands pointing, writing on the paper or highlighting. This is much more efficient than sending video. A similar system is used for screen capture, with the cursor and changes in the screen show as low speed video.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Podcasts: Transforming RSS feeds for packaged content

With the audio of lectures available as podcasts, the question then arises of how to package this with the rest of the material.

Those preparing web content normally think of a set of web pages. When preparing on-line course content with something like Moodle or Web CT, the creator has a lot of control over what the student sees in what sequence. Where audio has been available online for a course it was similarly neatly packaged and sequenced.

The Podcasts, in contrast, arrive on the student's player mixed in with other courses and other audio content: sounds and radio programs. The educator might be tempted to try to stop this from happening, but that is the reality for the student in the real world, so the educator may as well get used to it. Students do not experience each course as an uninterrupted stream of content. They have lectures from different courses intermixed with the rest of their life.

One interesting technical possibility is to use the feed to supply all the course content, not just the podcast. The course then becomes part of life's rich (digital) tapestry. Feeds were originally for text and so not just audio, but text and images can be supplied as well. While the educator will have lost a little control of the content this way, at least the audio will be with accompanying text for a particular unit.

One interesting possibility is to replace most, or all, of the web based course interface with the feed. The primary interface for the course would then be the feed reader, not the course management software. If the student looked at the feed file using a web browser, they would see what looked like a page from a course system, such as Web CT. But in reality this would be the feed magically transformed.

This is not as hard as it sounds. Normally if you click on an RSS feed without having any reader software you will get the cryptic contents of the feed file. The file is in XML, not HTML and cannot be rendered by a web browser. But the web and newer browsers, have a feature built in to allow XML to be transformed into HTML on demand.

The BBC take this approach with their RSS feeds. XSLT is activated when the RSS is opened in a web browser. The XSLT is, in effect, a computer program which reads the RSS content and transforms it into a web page before displaying it. The human reader see a catalog of the audio items available. They can then click on the podcast they want to listen to, or be taken to another page which tells them how to get podcast software. This all happens automatically in the web browser.

This same approach could be applied for course content.

Podcasting Digital Lectures

Having the Apple MacBook working, I was about to make my own podcast using GarageBand when I had a call from the Australian National University (ANU) Scholarly Technology Services to say they had turned my web design lectures into podcasts.

The ANU already has a system which lets lecturers easily record and distribute lectures, called "Digital Lecture Delivery" (DLD). To record a lecture I log onto the PC built into the lecture podium and select DLD. This then looks up the university timetable to see who is due to give what lecture in that room and displays those details. If that is correct (which it always has been) I then click at big green button to start recording.

The audio from the room PA system is used for the recording. At the end of the lecture I just have to remember to click the big red button to end the recording. This is then made available to enrolled students on the course web system, by web streaming and as an MP3 file to download. I pointed out in a seminar on podcasting a few weeks ago that it was a small extra step to make these recordings into podcasts. STS took this to heart and created a test system using my lectures.

A small RSS file is automatically created from the course information already in the ANU's system, with the course name, the lecture time and the speaker's details. There are two versions of the file: a standard RSS one and one for iTunes, with extra information fields (the iTunes version doesn't do a lot more right now as there is little extra information to put in it).

One technical aspect is that the feed is available optionally using the feed protocol. This is prefixed with "feed:" instead of "http:" and is supposed to be more efficient for handling feeds. But if you don't have special software to handle the protocol (such as iTunes), you can just replace "feeds:" with "http:" and it works fine.

The test system works fine technically, but can't be put into production until some tricky policy questions are answered about who will have access to the feeds and how much security is needed on them. Judging from the PR material from some US universities, you might think that they are now giving free access to everything online: just download it. This is not quite the case and there are many reasons why free access to everything is not practical or a good idea. As one example some guest lecturers are happy to talk to the students, but not have their every word recorded and broadcast worldwide. The technology may be working but the policy to go with it will take a little longer.

Podcasting and the MacBook Pro

After looking at the theory of pods and pedagogy I went back to implementation. Apple Australia sent me the manual and software which should have been with the iPod they loaned me. This would have made things much easier. They also loaned me one of their new 17 inch MacBook Pro laptops with the new dual core Intel processor. This is pre-loaded with the iTunes audio subscription software and Garage Band audio editing software (which has been enhanced to do podcasts).

The MacBook is a very attractive looking desktop replacement machine. It is too large to be a practical carry-around computer. But it did fit in my briefcase (alongside my own laptop) there are smaller models in the range. While elegantly designed, the Apple is not without flaws: at one stage I couldn't stop a process running and had to press Control-Command-Power (the Apple equivalent of Windows CNTL-ALT-DEL).

But this is a minor quibble and the purpose of the exercise was podcasting. With the iTunes software preloaded, it is just a matter of entering the URL of a podcast feed. The available audio is then listed. You can manually select which to transfer to the iPod or have it done automatically.

One problem is that it is not obvious you can use iTunes with non-Apple audio. You have to know to look under the "advanced" pull down menu of iTunes to enter a URL. This all works fine when you know how, but Apple seem to be encouraging you to stay within the contents of their own iTunes store and not go looking for outside content.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Smart Business Networks

On Friday I attended an excellent talk by Professor Eric van Heck of RSM Erasmus University, Rotterdam on "The Emergence of Smart Business Networks". I didn't have to go all the way to The Netherlands, as he was a guest of the ANU's National Centre for Information Systems Research in Canberra:
The smart business network (SBN) captures the capabilities of many individual organisations to fulfil customer needs and compete more effectively. Rather than performing as individuals in a traditional value chain, organisations combine rapidly to act in highly efficient and effective delivery. These participants are nodes in a loosely structured network in which they are linked according to the customer’s specific delivery requirements to become the smart business network. Indeed, customers become integral participants in the smart business network.

Professor van Heck will show that smart business networks now exist and are growing. Users download Skype’s “business logic” for telephony; eBay combines ad hoc buyers and sellers in an electronic market; Friendster connects over 20 million individuals who create their own online profiles and is introducing trading of digital content. With simple network structures these and many other examples are initiating new behaviour and indicating how nodes in a business network will link and interact.
Professor van Heck went through several examples, including:
  • Kenny's Bookshop: an Irish bookstore which now operates globally selling Gaelic literature,
  • thebigword: translation services company, which uses translators world wide for fast translations,
  • Dutch Flower Auctions: The traditional Dutch auction is now conducted online.
  • Gewild Wonen ("Sought-after" or "spontaneous" housing): This is a residential area in a new town in The Netherlands built using modular housing techniques. This struck a chord as I have been looking at modular building, but had not thought of the role the Internet could play.
It would be tempting for an IT person to dismiss this area of information systems research by saying that it was business people taking the obvious and dressing it up in research terms. The Internet and the web allow individuals and businesses to work together on-line. But is this really such a new idea? It has been possible to use the fax, telex and before them the telegram to work electronically at a distance for at least the last hundred years. Is there really anything that different in a bookstore contacting suppliers and clients via the Internet, than via letter or telegram? Is it a difference of kind or just degree?

What I found more interesting than the examples was Professor van Heck's use of the network theory of Paul Erdos to work out if a potential networked organization was of a suitable structure to work. In this way, for example, you might work out if a potential on-line business idea you had was workable. How many hundreds or thousands of organizations could you have, what structure of franchisees would work?

Professor van Heck also asked the provocative question as to how this might be applied to government. Could government be restructured as a series of networked service providers? He observed that the Finance Department might do well out of this, becoming the natural coordinating agency. Perhaps we could take this a step further: my apartment's body corporate acts as a kind of fourth tier of government, providing some services to residents. Perhaps smart networks could be used to seamlessly blend this with local government.

Professor van Heck has a book entitled "Smart Business Networks" and you can read bits of it on the Amazon web site. I searched for "Australia" and found only one reference on Page 187:
"... excess of 150 U.S. academic and research libraries and have clients in other countries in- cluding the U.K., France, Germany, Australia, Russia and Japan. The success in being able to cost effectively reach existing customers via the Internet and in particular ..."
Hopefully after his Australian visit we will get a bigger mention in his next book.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Energy Efficient Home Display in Canberra

energy fficient home
Three energy and water efficient homes are on display in Canberra, from February 2006 to May 2007. The general public can visit during the opening hours and school groups can book a tour to learn about sustainable design principles. There is also an okay interactive on-line tour.

The houses are at North Watson, in Canberra's inner north, near the main road to Sydney. On the weekend I looked at one of the houses, at 13 Roma Mitchell Crescent, and talked to Ngaio Fitzpatrick, from Strine Design. There was a little too much exposed concrete for my liking, but otherwise the design looked livable.